Going for Woke – Part 2 | When it’s bad for the brand, as well as the issues
Back in 2020 we began our spotlight on the phenomenon of ‘Woke Capitalism’, and how it is impacting brands. Which is not all good. And we attempted to help brand owners navigate these potentially choppy waters in a way that would strengthen their brand, while building ‘a better world’. Sadly, it’s like nobody listened.
Indeed. Since then corporates going ‘woke’ has grown from a flood to an avalanche, steamrolling all in its path. While it is driven in many cases by worthy motives – the aim to make business more responsible, sustainable and kinder to the planet – it has often been pursued with a zeal that is divisive and hypocritical. The casualties include not just the bottom line – as key customer segments are put off by preachy corporate behaviour – but the brand itself, as it becomes apparent that for many companies this move is a cynical ploy adopted for short term gain, and not a sincere outworking of their brand story.
The result is not only the erosion of their uniqueness and differentiation, as everyone jumps on the same bandwagon, but in some cases the undermining of their brand, as they are consumed by a kind of woke zeal.
But before we come that, we need to understand why this is all happening.
In our previous article ‘Going for woke – When is it too much, or not enough?’ we described how over the last ten years there has been a huge shift in the conception of corporate purpose worldwide, from shareholder capitalism, to stakeholder capitalism. Under shareholder capitalism, the main responsibility of businesses is to provide a good return for shareholders on their investments, and to make a profit. In this regime the purpose of the company and the focus of their brand is mainly on the quality of their products and services, and the story and values that lie behind that.
Under stakeholder capitalism a company serves not only its shareholders, but all its ‘stakeholders’ – in other words its employees, customers, suppliers, and the local community in which it is situated. The model is that of a business where its performance is measured not only in terms of profit and shareholder returns, but also on how it serves its other stakeholders too. This has been codified in a universally adopted set of ‘Environmental, Social and Governance’ (ESG) guidelines, developed by the United Nations. In parallel with this, another set of universally accepted objectives has developed around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). These DEI objectives have been incorporated into the ESG guidelines.
This stakeholder shift and its codification in the ESG guidelines, has become the ‘new normal’ for corporates and listed companies in the developed world.
When it comes to how this impacts brands, stakeholder capitalism has meant that the purpose of a company has taken on a moral dimension. And in many cases, this moral purpose has tended to influence and redefine the brand. Which is why we have seen brands like DBS Bank become as linked with their community outreach as their banking services, as we pointed out in Part 1. Or Banyan Tree Resorts where their commitment to environmental sustainability is as much a part of their luxury brand as the quality of their hospitality.
And this rising tide has met the concerns of the moment, as the younger generation of customers and investors – millennials and their successors – increasingly want the brands they purchase to reflect their moral values, and be a force for good in the world, as we highlighted in our blogpost ‘Wear your values on your sleeve’.
So you may be thinking ‘What’s not to like about this development – it’s all good right?’ Well yes we agree, good when it works. The trouble is, it doesn’t always work. Things are not panning out how one would expect. Particularly in the impact of woke capitalism on corporate brands.
The best brands are about being authentic, being differentiated and being true to themselves, However, going woke has proven time and again to subvert all the above qualities, and we need to understand how that happens:
Every brand has its own story to tell and its own unique character, which is what makes it stand out from the competition. Sadly when brands go woke, they tend to erode their differentiation, and what makes them unique
1. Brands are about being authentic. There is nothing authentic about ‘woke-washing’
In his book ‘Woke, Inc.’, political commentator Vivek Ramaswamy takes aim at what he calls ‘Woke Capitalism’ – which is what he characterises as the outcome of stakeholder capitalism, because of the way ESG and DEI guidelines have become synonymous with what most people regard as ‘woke’. He asserts that much of woke capitalism is a scam meant to help companies make a profit. In this case the apparent wokeness is a cynical ploy by executives to attract customers (and employees) by signalling that the company shares their values, and are part of their tribe. Another reason corporates pursue this tactic, so he claims, is to divert attention away from their sometimes chequered past, or unsavoury business practices.
He points out that after the 2008 financial crisis, the leaders of business and high finance found themselves looked upon as “the bad guys” for causing the crisis, and hence their desire to restore their reputations with easy gains on this new ‘moral’ balance sheet. Which fortunately for them, coincided with the hunger of the millennial generation to find a higher purpose in their workplaces, and brand choices.
So companies have adopted a veneer of progressive values, placing themselves on ‘the right side of history’ by taking a stand on the most important issues of the day, from gender discrimination and climate change to racism and social injustice.
The trouble with this is twofold. First of all, it doesn’t cost these companies anything in terms of real effort, or treasure. Because their so-called ‘advocacy’ around these issues rides on the back of the hard work of others, including government and political activists, who have already been successful in influencing public opinion. Secondly, their advocacy never translates into meaningful action. It’s mostly about virtue signalling.
Today this is called ‘Woke washing’, the enthusiastic bedfellow of ‘green washing’ and ‘pink washing’.
A classic example of this is the fashion brand Benetton, who since the1990s have aggressively pursued ‘issues-driven’ advertising to paint themselves as a very woke brand. In other words, they’ve used shocking images of some of the world’s most painful examples of suffering and injustice, in their advertising. According to them, they are using their ads as a platform to spotlight the pressing issues of our time.
Over the years Benetton have been widely perceived to be shamelessly exploiting various human tragedies, like the plight of refugees in the Mediterranean, to promote their brand
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For example, in 2018 the company repurposed two photographs from recent migrant rescue operations in the Mediterranean sea, for an advertising campaign. One image depicted charity workers handing out life jackets to migrants on an overflowing raft. The other showed migrant women and their children at an aid station in Italy.
At the end of the day, Benetton were effectively exploiting human suffering, to promote their products. As the charity conducting the ocean rescue said at the time, “SOS Méditerranée fully dissociates itself from this campaign, which displays a picture taken while our teams were rescuing people in distress at sea. The human tragedy at stake in the Mediterranean must never be used for any commercial purposes.”
The trouble with any companies that engage in woke washing, green washing or pink washing – if their history as a brand has no link with such a stand, and they don’t in any meaningful sense ‘walk the talk’ in their corporate outreach, people will smell a rat. In today’s social media saturated world, customers, staff and the public at large are very quick to notice when a company is being hypocritical. In other words, when words are not matched by deeds. If this happens, their brand will take a beating.
2. Brands are about differentiation. There is nothing ‘differentiated’ about woke.
As we noted earlier, all the woke issues of the day, from gender discrimination and climate change to racism and social injustice, have been codified by the United Nations in their ESG guidelines. These moral expectations are the default setting for businesses across the developed world. In a sense therefore, while they are all very worthy, they are not particularly distinctive, or differentiating. They have simply become the new hygiene factors for doing business. They should be taken for granted, in any company.
The trouble is, so many brands are jumping on this bandwagon, and trumpeting their efforts around a number of these issues, as if it makes them special, or unique. When there is nothing special about acting responsibly in the community, or looking after the environment, or treating all people with respect.
For example, what two leading consumer brands did recently in their marketing outreach, Pepsi, and M&Ms. When it comes to Pepsi, after the Black Lives Matter marches happened, they produced an ad featuring Kendall Jenner, using her cute looks and a can of Pepsi to do guess what? Diffuse a race riot, no less! The ad was met with widespread ridicule, with critics accusing Pepsi of appropriating the anti-race BLM movement to burnish their anti-racism credentials, and differentiate them from their competitors. Except there is nothing ‘differentiating’ about being anti-racist. We should all be like that.
Pepsi attracted huge ridicule when they employed Kendal Jenner in one of their ads, to ‘defuse’ a fake race riot with a can of Pepsi, just to burnish their anti-racism credentials
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Then there’s M&Ms. In the wake of the ‘#MeToo’ movement, the chocolate giant Mars took it upon themselves to rebrand their M&Ms to reflect a ‘more dynamic, progressive world’. In the process they downgraded the so-called ‘sexiness’ of two of their female characters. The green lady M&M was made ‘less sexy’. The brown M&M lady was given more ‘professional’ heels… whatever that means. While being anti-sexist is good, there is nothing distinctive about it. It’s not unique to the M&M brand, nor even Mars as a whole. It’s just the way we should all treat each other. In short, in order to be distinctive and truly differentiate themselves from their competitors, brands need to focus on and rediscover who they are, and what their unique brand story is all about. And how that meets the needs of their customers. This is what makes a brand stand out and succeed, in a crowded market. Not the fact that they treat everyone with the respect they deserve.
3. Brands are about being who you are. Going ‘woke’ may make you who you’re not.
In our previous blogpost ‘What is the future of branding?’, we described how there’s been a huge shift in the way brands are built, from being created and managed by brand owners, to being shaped, curated and evolved by the consumer. Brands are basically built in the minds of its users, not its producers. The task of the producer or brand owner, is to recognise how a brand is perceived in the imagination of its target audiences, and if that’s positive, make sure you don’t mess with it. In fact, you need to strengthen it, and reinforce it.
One sad outcome of the general embrace of woke issues in the West, has been the way it has undermined what key institutions used to stand for. In the process, effectively subverting their brands. One of the most widespread examples is what has happened to universities and academic institutions, particularly in the English-speaking countries. Universities used to jealously guard their reputation for objective academic enquiry, open debate, and free speech. Nowadays they’ve been captured by a kind of totalitarian embrace of progressive politics, with very divisive views around race and gender, for example. Unless faculty and students sign up to this narrow ideological view, they are ‘excluded’.
Then there’s what’s happened to the UK police force. Once famed for its political impartiality, competence and professionalism, over the last few years its authority and long-established brand reputation has been completely undermined by a mind-boggling capitulation to woke politics. Officers up and down the land were seen ‘taking the knee’ at BLM protests. The force as a whole has become preoccupied with policing ‘hate speech’ on social media, rather than solving real crime. Police cars are often painted in rainbow colours to support Gay Pride marches, and officers don’t just police these events, they participate in them.
A low point was at a recent Pride march, which the police used as a recruiting event. The public were informed beforehand on social media that the police didn’t want those who disagree with their progressive views to even apply to become an officer.
Nowadays UK police officers have embraced progressive politics to such an extent that they have lost their reputation for impartiality, and their interest in tackling real crime.
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So much for their famed impartiality, and rigorous upholding of the law! It’s actually illegal in the UK to discriminate against anyone on the basis of their political views, particularly in recruitment. So the law keepers have become law breakers.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with individual officers holding political views, whether progressive or conservative, in a private capacity. What is wrong is when the whole police force officially adopts a political stance, because that undermines their duty to be impartial. The UK policing manual states this: “Police officers must not take any active part in politics. This is intended to prevent you from placing yourself in a position where your impartiality may be questioned.”
The key point to make here is that the UK police had an amazing reputation as a competent, impartial force, carefully built up over almost 200 years. That brand image has been seriously undermined in the public’s mind, by an obsession with woke politics. An obsession which has made the UK police completely forget who they are.
So much for the three key downsides of ‘going for woke’. But don’t get us wrong, we actually believe that ‘building a better world’ while creating a profitable business is not only important, but the two go hand in hand. Bearing that in mind, we come to the key question – what can be done about it? What can brand owners do to become more values-oriented, in a way that helps the planet and strengthens their brand, while not alienating their customers and the public at large? How can companies avoid the pitfalls, and preserve their unique brand equity, while attempting to become a better corporate citizen?
All of these questions are addressed in Part 1 of this series, ‘Going for woke – when is it too much, or not enough?’ We encourage you to read it.
Please note: We understand the challenge of creating a compelling brand promise and managing the experience of your brand in a consistent way, at every customer touchpoint. With our unrivalled expertise in brand strategy and identity design, we are able to craft inspiring brands and a holistic brand experience, across all channels. If anything we have written above in the blogpost strikes a chord, and you need our assistance, do get in touch with us here.